Authors: Ellis Peters
“You,” said Tamsin forcefully, “are a heartless old woman, that’s what you are. I wish you’d tell me what you did to him this morning. I know there’s something.”
“What I did to him, indeed! Don’t be impertinent! I’m the old woman who pays your salary, at any rate,” said Miss Rachel tartly, because no matter how firmly she held the door, the demons were getting through it. “You’d better remember that, miss. I hate dining alone, and you know it. And I haven’t had my game of chess. So stop being melodramatic, and get the board.”
“You’ll have to make do with patience,” said Tamsin. “I shan’t be here.”
Miss Rachel called after her towards the door, in high indignation. “If you go, you needn’t bother to come back.”
“Good-bye, then,” said Tamsin pleasantly, and closed the door after her without even a slam.
Miss Rachel, left alone, was astonished and annoyed to find herself crying.
THE TIDE WAS two hours past the full, and it was getting dark. The cauldron off the point was just going off the boil, slivers of slate-grey pebbly beach showed between the fangs of the Dragon, rimmed with scummy foam. The Dragon’s Hole, which pierced clean through the headland near its narrowest point, and acted as a spectacular blow-hole as the tide streamed in to its highest, was merely breathing spume now in a desultory manner, as though the Dragon was falling asleep. Soon the dripping crown of the arched entrance would heave clear of the water, and the level would sink magically fast, to leave the whole rocky gateway clear. At low tide you could clamber and walk right through it, and emerge in the snaky little haven on the Pentarno side. Certain regions of the complex of caverns inside were always above water, but for three hours before and after high tide both entrances were submerged.
They were all in the hunt by then. Phil had driven in from the farm in the Mini, pale and strained and violently silent, matched herself with the first partner who happened to come in with his periodical, and negative report, and gone off with him to scour the most distant of the Maymouth beaches. Fate dealt her George, for which she was grateful, because that compelled her to behave sensibly and contain her terrors; she couldn’t have borne to be with Tim just then, to double his anguish and her own.
Bunty had come down from the hotel, determined not to be left out, workmanlike in slacks and a windjacket, and was quartering the country fringes of Maymouth with the Vicar, in case Paddy had had a fall or a crash somewhere on his intended way home. There were precipitous lanes he might have chosen to use, to vary the monotony of his journey, and a cyclist can come to grief on even the quietest of roads, given a little carelessness or a too-optimistic local driver who assumes no one uses these by-ways but himself. Everyone who was at all intimate with the boy had been telephoned and asked to keep in touch. What more could they do but just look everywhere, and go on looking?
Tamsin and Dominic had worked their way the length of the harbour, down on the mud, following up the receding tide, and come empty-handed to the remotest rocks under the wall, where ashlar gave way to granite and shale, and the jagged scales of the Dragon leaned over them. The sea still lipped the cliffs here, they could go no farther as yet. They turned inland, hugging the cliff wall, winding in and out of its many razor-edged alcoves, and the crying of the subsiding waves followed them mournfully. They were drenched with spray and very muddy. Dominic had the torch, and sometimes turned to empty its light carefully before her feet in the rough places, and give her a hand. She knew every inch of this shore, but she took the hand, just the same. They were both glad of the touch. This had been going on for such a long time now, and where can you lose a sensible, responsible boy of fifteen, where, at least, that hadn’t already been searched? Except in the sea! They wouldn’t think that, they couldn’t, it was unthinkable. Paddy was strong, shrewd and capable, and knew his native coast. He was alive, he must be alive.
They climbed slowly out of the pebbly fringes of the sea, towards where the first steep path plunged down from the Dragon’s Head. A surging rush of air was all the warning they had. They sprang apart before the hurtling onslaught of something that came bounding down the slope, flashed between them, and was dragged to a noisy stop by a toe horribly scoring the turf. Small, invisible things hopped and rolled under their feet. A voice, anxious, urgent and low, panted: “Tam, is that you?”
Stumbling and slipping on the rolling missiles, Tamsin groped for a tweed sleeve. Dominic turned the torch, and Simon’s face started out of the dark, abrupt in black and white, strained to steel-sharpness, for once utterly bereft of its light, world-weary smile.
“Simon, for God’s sake! What are you trying to do, kill yourself? Fancy riding a bicycle down—”
Tamsin stopped, swallowed, drew breath hard and was silent. The light of the torch passed briefly over the frame of the bicycle, the carrier on the front, the basket spilling small oval fruit. They had no colour by this light, but Tamsin knew them for apricots. She whispered, “Where did you find it?”
“In the gorse, up by the cliff path there. Put down quite carefully, the basket lifted out. Near the edge,” said Simon, low-voiced and ashen-faced. “Not exactly hidden. Laid down out of the way.”
“He did it himself?”
“I think so. I hope so. I’m going to turn it in at once, in case it can tell us anything.”
along the path?” she demanded intently. Her voice had lost its reserve in Simon’s presence, and its sting, too, as his face had lost its assured sophistication. It was as if they had never bumped into each other without masks before, and now that they had, they couldn’t even see each other.
“Farther out. Over the blow-hole, about. Have you been down there?”
“We couldn’t yet, not so far. It’s going out fast now, though, we’ll follow on down.”
“Do, Tam, please. I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
“Do you think he could have fallen?” she asked, desperately quietly.
“I don’t know. I won’t think so. I—Oh, Tam!” said Simon suddenly, his voice almost inaudible, and caught at her hand for a moment; and instantly pulled away from her, climbed unsteadily on to the bicycle that was too small for him, and wobbled away recklessly across the bumpy waste of turf to the road and the town. Soiled and dishevelled and faintly ridiculous, and for once wholly, passionately intent upon someone other than himself, without a thought for the preservation of his image or his legend.
Dominic switched off the torch; and after a moment he put an arm delicately but quite confidently about Tamsin, and turned her towards the sea.
They followed the receding tide down the beach yard by yard, ranging along the edge of the water and coasting round into every new complexity of the cliff wall, which ran down here in striated, shaly strata into the litter of flat, blue pebbles and eroded shell. A certain amount of lambent light showed along the breaking foam, and gleamed from the streaming rocks, and their torch, a thin pencil in the dark, probed the corners where even the starlight could not reach.
Simon?” said Tamsin suddenly, all the old obduracy back in her voice.
“Well, that’s what you called him,” said Dominic cautiously.
“Thanks. Just making sure. It’s the first time I ever saw him when he didn’t have an imaginary mirror in front of him. He must be really fond of Paddy.”
“He is,” said Dominic.
“Do I detect a note of reproof in your voice, Mr. Felse?”
He said nothing. What was the good? Only a tiny corner of her mind fretted at the memory of Simon off his guard, and that was to make their one overwhelming anxiety bearable, like pinching yourself to take your mind off a hideous toothache. Any serious thinking she was going to do about it would be done later, in repose, when, please God, they’d have Paddy Rossall safe in bed, and Simon restored to his old image. And then he’d start rubbing her up the wrong way all over again.
“You’ll notice,” she said perversely, her shoes slipping in the weedy crevices of the rock, “he never asks me to marry him when there might be the slightest fear of me saying yes.” She slithered into the edge of an invisible pool, and Dominic caught her by the arm and drew her back on to safe ground.
“Fine! Just a shoe-full of sea. It can’t make me any wetter.” She held on to him for a moment, steadying herself. Her hands were very cold. He saw her face close to him, feathers of wet hair plastered to her cheek, her eyes sombre and wretched. “Dom—we shall find him, shan’t we?”
“Yes,” he said, very firmly. “He’s a sensible kid, I don’t believe he’d let anyone creep up on him, and I don’t believe he’d do anything daft himself.” Which from eighteen to fifteen, when Tamsin came to think of it, was pretty generous, but he sounded as if he really meant it. “He’ll be found intact,” said Dominic strenuously, “and with any luck, we shall be the ones to find him. So hang on, and let’s have a look round the next corner.”
They had looked round a good many by then, with their hearts in their mouths at every turning, but so far there’d been no slight, tumbled body under the cliffs, and nothing washing about in the edge of the retreating waves but casual weed.
“Yes,” she said docilely. And after a moment, very quietly at his shoulder: “You’re a nice boy, Dominic Felse, I like you.”
“Good! I like you, too, I like you a lot. There, you see, nothing!” He couldn’t help reflecting, as soon as it was out, that nothing was a pretty poor return for all their hunting, and a pretty lame reassurance for Paddy’s mother. But it was all they had, and it was better than the wrong thing, at any rate.
The sea sighed away from them, down the more steeply tilted shingle. They stood close under the overhang of the cliff, on a washed and empty shore, and right above their heads must be the necklace of the lofty path that circled the Dragon’s Head, and the scattered hollows of gorse where Simon had found the bicycle. The waters had left the arched entrance of the cave now, it stood tamed and dark above a faint glimmer of salt puddles penned among the boulders.
They halted for only a second, contemplating it together.
“He wouldn’t,” said Tamsin, “would he?”
“Not without a reason, but he may have had a reason, how do we know?”
“But he knows the tides, he wouldn’t let himself get caught.”
“Something may have happened that didn’t leave him any choice. Anyhow, we’re not leaving anything out.”
“Careful, then,” she cautioned, drawing him to the right, to the landward side of the thin channel of water that lay prisoned among the pebbles in the cavern’s mouth. “This side’s the smoothest going. And look out, there are holes.”
Dominic fell into one at that moment, cold salt water gripped him to the knees, and the chilling shock surprised a muted yell out of him. Deep in the blackness beyond the beam of the torch, echo took the shout and volleyed it back to him redoubled.
“Dom!” Tamsin caught at his arm. “Did you hear that?”
Floundering out of the crevices on slippery oblique rock, he supposed that she was as startled by the force and complexity of the echo as he had been, and merely went on scrambling noisily up to safer ground. “Hear it? I started it. It wasn’t that good an imitation—”
“No—listen!” She shook him impatiently, and he froze into obedient silence, straining his ears.
Nothing at first, not a sound; then they were aware of the ceaseless, soft, universal sound of the dripping of sea water from every jutting point of the stone ceiling above them and the contorted walls around, and the soft, busy flowing of a dozen rivulets draining down between the pebbles into the central channel behind them. The place was full of the sounds of water, but empty of the sounds of men.
“But it wasn’t all echo. I’m sure!”
Almost fearfully, Dominic called upward into the invisible spaces of the cave: “Paddy?”
The call came eddying back to him from a dozen projections he could not see, repeated in a dozen hopeful, fearful inflections, ricocheting away into silence. Then a last faint and distant sound, out of turn, out of key, started a weak reverberation away on their right.
“There! Hear that? There
But Dominic was already scrambling wildly up the rattling scree of sand and gravel and shell, the pencil of wavering light wincing away from rocks and water-drips before him, clawing his way up towards the drier reaches of the cave. He stretched out a hand to her and dragged her after him. Stumbling, slipping, panting, they climbed inland; and somewhere ahead of them, distant and faint but drawing nearer, unmistakable sounds of someone else’s stumbling, slipping, panting progress came down to meet them.
Into the beam of the torch blundered Paddy Rossall, wiping his dirty face hastily with an even dirtier hand; pallid, wet, and shivering with cold, but alive, intact and alone.
“You don’t mind,” said Phil, turning in at the drive of Treverra Place, “if we call in here? I don’t know that it will do any good, but I just thought, while we’re so near—She might remember
he said, anything that will give us the faintest clue. I know we’ve asked the same questions already, but it’s worth one more try. Oh, George, my poor little boy! I wish I hadn’t said no to him. I wish I’d let him go with Tim and Simon—at least he’d have been safe with them.”
It was the most she had said in all the hours they had hunted together. As long as there’d been more places to search, more possible people to contact, Phil had been a silent, ferocious force of nature sweeping all before her. Only now, when they had almost exhausted the possibilities, was the edge of desperation audible in her voice, and the shadow of breakdown a perceptible cloud over her face.
Miss Rachel was sitting over the fire in her sitting-room, huddled like a broody bird, with her solitary dinner untouched on a little table beside her. She stiffened her old spine and snapped the imperious lights on again in her eyes when Phil stalked in with George at her elbow, but she knew her back was against the wall.
“Aunt Rachel, didn’t he say
about where he was going? There must have been something. You did see him yourself, didn’t you? Well, what
he say? I
we’re snatching at crumbs. Damn it, crumbs is all we’ve got.”
“Yes, I talked to him, certainly.” Miss Rachel looked smaller than usual, but fiercer. Attack is the best defence. “What passed between Paddy and me can’t possibly have anything to do with any danger to him. But it may—I say
—account for his naughtiness in staying away like this. If you ask me, that’s all it is, and you are just playing into his hands. I was justified in being cross with him. He was exceedingly impertinent and very disobedient, and it was high time someone took steps to bring him to a more chastened frame of mind.”
Quivering and aghast, Phil demanded: “But what—for God’s sake, Aunt Rachel, what
you do to him?”